Why Republican Efforts to Ban the 1619 Project from Classrooms are so MisguidedRoundup
tags: history education, slavery, racism, academic freedom, teaching history, 1619 Project
Seth Rockman is Associate Professor of History at Brown University.
Nineteen months after it was published by the New York Times, the 1619 Project remains in the public eye — primarily due to the efforts of its detractors to undermine it. Under the Twitter hashtag #1619Project, discussion on social media is nearly as robust today as it was when the special issue of the New York Times Magazine first appeared. And by consistently invoking the 1619 Project as an attack on America and then seeking to pass laws to ban its use in the classroom, right-wing politicians have given an unanticipated longevity to a debate about the future of the past.
As with all forms of history — a museum exhibition, a popular book in an airport bookstore, a Broadway play or a specialized article in a peer-reviewed research journal — there is space for debate about argument, evidence and interpretation. By definition, history is an ongoing conversation in which trained professionals and multiple publics wrestle with the meaning of the past. Disagreement is desirable as it shows us that something important is at stake.
So what is at stake in a version of U.S. history that foregrounds the lives and experiences of Black Americans? Why would this prove so threatening that it requires laws to prevent students from encountering it at school?
This is a question that critics of the 1619 Project have answered eloquently, if perhaps unintentionally, in their speeches, op-eds and tweets: Many of the “truths” that Americans hold sacred regarding our nation’s history and its investments in liberty and prosperity are harder to sustain once a person takes seriously slavery and its legacies of anti-Black racism.
It isn’t merely that American history would lose some of its shine, but rather that a profoundly disquieting realization would come into view. What if the possibility for some Americans to enjoy liberty and prosperity had been predicated on the very denial of those things to other Americans? What if, for much of American history, some significant percentage of the population defined freedom as the right to own other Americans?
For some (but certainly not all) Americans in 2021, this might be a revelation. The scales would fall from their eyes, they would admit they’d been living a lie or had been lied to for decades, and then … well, and then what?
According to former president Donald Trump and many other opponents of the 1619 Project, they would stop loving America and their patriotism would evaporate. It’s this desire to protect the sanctity of the American ideal that purportedly motivates legislation seeking to ban the 1619 Project’s classroom curriculum.
Yet the idea that the 1619 Project undermines American patriotism seems a large — and largely erroneous — logical leap.
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